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What is SLI and how can I help?

Discover what is meant by the term SLI or specific language impairment and how you can help support children with the condition.

Here, I CAN's Amanda Baxter talks through the common questions, real-life examples and ways you can reflect on your practice. Plus if you want to understand more on specific language impairment you can read more on pages 22-23 of Spring 2016 edition of Childcare Professional magazine

What's in a name?

SLI, or specific language impairment to give it its full title is a term that is used to describe difficulties with learning and using language that are not caused by conditions such as general learning difficulties, hearing impairment or autistic spectrum disorders.

Children with SLI are often as clever as other children but they still have difficulties with speech and language. There is a lot of debate at the moment about what this condition should be called with different people suggesting different terms such as ‘language impairment’.  Find out more about this on the I CAN website

SLI: the facts

How many children have SLI?

Out of a class of 30 usually two children will have SLI. It affects about 7% of the population. This is more than autistic spectrum disorders which affect about 1%.

How can I tell if a child I am supporting has SLI?

It is not always easy to tell if a young child has SLI.  Usually children with SLI struggle to talk and may be later than other children to say their first words in their home language. They may also prefer to play on their own, struggle to make friends and also avoid interacting with other people so it can look like they have a difficulty with social interaction.

Below are some case studies of what SLI means for different children.

What does SLI mean for Jake?

Jake is 3 years old. He communicates by using more gestures and actions than words. Sometimes he makes up his own signs when he doesn’t know a word. He can say a few words but a lot of what he says isn’t clear at all.

What does SLI mean for Imran?

Imran likes to interact with people; in fact he’s very sociable. But, he does find it difficult to join in games because he can’t follow the rules. This means that although he usually starts to play the games his friends are playing, he quickly drifts off and ends up on his own.

What does SLI mean for Emily?

Emily is 4 years old and although Emily looks at adults when she is given an instruction, she doesn’t do anything until she sees what others are doing. She finds it hard to make sense of what she’s being asked to do so relies on watching what peers are doing.

What does SLI mean for Karl?

Karl likes to play with construction toys. He can’t understand what other people tell him to build, but if they show him, or draw a picture he knows what to do.

What does SLI mean for Amira?

Although she’s 4 years old, Amira can only speak in 2 or 3 word sentences. She tries to join in at circle time and share her news from the weekend, but usually manages only the key words. Adults have to add to what she says to enable Amira to be clear to the other children.

How does a child get a diagnosis of SLI or language impairment?

A speech and language therapist initially will be able to assess a child’s speech, language and communication skills and provide support, working with other professionals. Support packages and professionals involved are different in each local area.

Reflecting on practice

If you are working with young children you may notice that their language skills are not developing as you would expect. Here are some general ideas about how to support children and families with early identification and intervention.

  • Observe and assess the children you are supporting to check their development in all areas.
  • Discuss their language development with family. Do they have concerns? Have they noticed the same at home?
  • Use the approaches suggested in I CAN's article. You can find more ideas on the Talking Point website.
  • Use photos and pictures to make your setting and routines easier to understand. Find out more here.
  • Find out about your local support services and speech and language therapy services.
  • Find out more about SLI here.
  • You can also contact I CAN's Enquiry Service if you would like to talk to a speech and language therapist.
  • Provide a communication supportive environment as you would do for all children. Find out more from the Talking Point website and previous blogs. 

****SPECIAL OFFER - Get 25% OFF the I CAN Specific Language Impairment Handbook - enter code SLI25 at the checkout until 23rd April 2016***

There is currently a lot of debate about the name and diagnosis we give children with these types of speech, language and communication needs. However, each child will still have a unique speech, language and communication profile and we need to plan from their interests and what they can do (as well as what they are struggling with) to help them to move on with communication. Crucial to this is identifying their needs and putting the right support in place.

About the author

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents.  Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant. 



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